On Robin Williams

cbs-greenlights-robin-williams-pilot-two-new-dramasLast night was the first time I thought about Robin Williams and didn’t laugh or even smile. Word of his death shocked me. The fact that he took his own life made it even more shocking.

Like many people of my age, I first encountered Robin Williams in his role as the alien from Ork, Mork. In the years since then, his screen, television and stage appearances made me howl with laughter. His dramatic roles were chilling. Few have his gifts.

There are many others who will eulogize and reflect on Robin Williams, and they will do a better job than I could. I’d like to use this blog to add my name to the list of those who will, as Robin Williams once urged, seize the day and talk about depression.

Depression is real. I know from personal experience. Thankfully, my depression was never even close to the levels that Robin Williams had to deal with. Nevertheless, I understand that depression is a disease, and it needs treatment. It’s not just a matter of “snapping out of it.” Depression involves the brain chemicals. Sometimes, a good counselor can make a world of difference (as it did with me). Oftentimes, some medications are needed (Zoloft is my friend).

People with depression are often ashamed. “How could you be depressed? Things are going so well for you,” people might say. Being successful is not an antidote for depression. It doesn’t change the brain chemistry that is out of whack. It’s easier to simply not discuss depression with others. People with depression usually don’t want others to know that they are taking medication for it. There are a lot of ignorant people who think that if you’re on antidepressants, you’re a hair away from shooting up a restaurant or workplace.

I don’t know what drove Robin Williams to end his own life. I don’t know how severe his depression was. I assume that he had access to the best doctors and therapists. But even a man as brilliant as Robin Williams might feel ashamed and afraid to do what he really needed to do to beat this disease. It’s also possible that he did everything possible, but like cancer, the disease finally won.

If you think you might have depression, don’t be ashamed. There are more people around you who also have depression than you would imagine. I’m not one who believes that everyone needs to be on pills. But I am one who believes that there are a lot of people dealing with depression who could benefit from meds or counseling. If you think, or someone close to you thinks depression might be at work, ask for help. I remember the day I picked up the phone to call a psychologist I know to schedule an appointment. I felt like it was the darkest day, the ultimate failure. Looking back, I want to kick myself for not doing it sooner.

If someone you work, live, or socialize with has depression, educate yourself. It’s not something you need to regularly ask about, but don’t feel afraid to ask either. For those of us with depression, it’s kind of like having high blood pressure in a way—we simply have it, we control it with medication and/or therapy, and we go about our day. Don’t treat the depressed person as a special case or like a delicate flower. Do what you always do with that person: engage in water cooler talk, tell bad jokes, share stories about what your kids did over the weekend. If the topic comes up, tell the person you’re impressed that they are fighting the disease and that you’re glad they took the first steps.

Most importantly, don’t shun or avoid someone with depression. Don’t make jokes about them (unless you’re truly such a real orifice that you can’t help yourself). Don’t gossip with others, wondering aloud if the person is going to “go postal” or “pull a Robin Williams” (if you do something like that, you really are an orifice—and you know which one I mean). If the person’s depression is so severe that you worry, then talk to the person directly. Express willingness to help the person find a good doctor to work with. Be a good friend.

Robin, you’ve brought tears of laughter to us so many times, and now we feel only tears of sadness. If heaven exists, maybe you finally have those phenomenal cosmic powers (without the itty bitty living space).




Four ways to make it harder for clients to contact you

Back in the old days, before voice mail, call waiting, even before answering machines, people could use a little trick to let preferred callers reach them. If you didn’t want to appear to be at home, but were expecting someone to call, you could let that person give you a signal. The person would dial your number, let it ring once, then hang up. A few seconds later, the person would dial your number again. On your end, you heard the one ring, followed by a pause, and then the next set of rings. At that point, you knew it was safe to pick up the phone.

This was a great way to avoid the boss who might want you to come in, yet still let your friends get through so you could coordinate that day’s outing to the movie theater. For your friends, it was great. For your boss, not so much.

Today, I am amazed at the number of lawyers who use similar techniques to avoid contact from clients, attorneys, and others. Here are four excellent methods:

  1. Use an anti-spam system that requires a sender to “confirm” his or her email address. Yes, spam is a problem, but with today’s filtering tools it’s not nearly the problem it used to be. Our firm uses Google Apps for our email, so we have Google’s spam filtering that kills off just about every solicitation for V1@gra. On top of that, I use SaneBox, which filters my email messages further into categories that I can review later and puts important messages into my inbox. The message you send with these email confirmation systems is that you don’t trust the person contacting you, and you’re more than happy to make them jump over a small hurdle to get in contact with you. Imagine if you had to do something similar at a restaurant: before you can make a reservation over the phone, you physically go in and fill out a form with your contact information. If I ran into a restaurant like that, I’d go elsewhere.
  2. Put a broken email address on your web site. Perhaps you have a general contact email address, like “lawyers@DeweyCheathamHowe.com.” Make sure that email sent to that address bounces back as undeliverable. (I had that happen to me just this morning using an address on a firm’s web site. If it frustrated me as a mediator trying to send potential mediation dates, you can bet it will frustrate the client.)
  3. Don’t put individual attorney email addresses on your web site. Make potential clients, your fellow attorneys, and even court staff dig up the general contact address—and if it’s broken, even better!
  4. Don’t put your fax number on your web site. Yes, faxing things is so 1990s, but at times it is convenient. I use an online fax system so I can send a fax to one or one hundred people via a single web page. But if you don’t want to get my urgent correspondence—or if you don’t want your clients to be able to quickly fax you a document—then keep your fax number off your web site.

    Since I’m feeling generous, here’s a bonus method.

  5. Don’t have a firm web site. Even in the year 2014, I am amazed at the number of law firms that don’t have web sites. Many of them do volume work, like collections or mortgage foreclosures. They may not have many potential clients looking for them via Google, but they probably do have opposing counsel, mediators, and court staff who would like to be able to locate contact information for individual attorneys. And, hey, if the firm moves, people can just wait until the new phone books come out in order to get the new contact information.

If you really don’t want people to be able to contact you, it’s your call. But no client has ever said that she recommends her attorney because he’s so hard to contact. No court clerk has ever said to the judge that a particular attorney is wonderful because she can’t be contacted except via snail mail. No colleague has ever referred a potential client to a lawyer because that lawyer’s web site had a broken email link.

Your legal rights in family law cases

These are your legal rights. Review them carefully and decide which ones you will invoke.


You have the legal right to never again say anything good to your children about their other parent.


You have the legal right to ruin every occasion your children see their parents together with some caustic or chilly interaction—and to actually make your children dread any future times their family might be together.
You have the legal right to show your children you think their other parent is the only person on the planet so loathsome as to be unworthy of your courtesy.
You have the legal right to refuse any adjustment to your parenting time that would allow your children to participate in a special event at their other home.
You have the legal right to turn every parenting or scheduling issue into a question of competing legal rights.
You have the legal right to spend every available ounce of your energy and every dollar you ever have to argue over your legal rights.
You have the legal right to show your children that the adult way to handle hurt and disappointment is to be resentful and argumentative. 
You have the legal right to ignore the overwhelming evidence that one of the greatest injuries to children is conflict between their parents.
You have the legal right to show your children that they come from one parent too awful to be forgiven and another parent too weak to forgive.
You have the legal right to make your children embarrassed and ashamed of their family—and thus embarrassed and ashamed of themselves.
You have the legal right to place your children at an overwhelming disadvantage to children whose parents are respectful and courteous toward each other.
You have the legal right to carry your resentments to your grave.
You have the legal right to have all your legal rights.

If you insist on exercising one or more of these legal rights, don’t be surprised if good family law attorneys are not interested in representing you.

Avoiding death by PowerPoint

TED Talks feature some of the best presentations—and use of slides—ever given on this planet. The TED blog provides us with 10 good tips to creating better slide decks.

all-hands-preparing-to-fail-140715112322-phpapp01_Page_01My favorite tip is No. 1: Think about your slides last. This is absolutely critical for any presentation, no matter how short or unimportant. I like to start with an even simpler question: Do I even need slides at all? Believe it or not, most presentations do not need slides. Period.

People attending your presentation are there to see and hear you. They are not there to see your slides. If all they cared about were the slides, they’d wait for them to show up on a web site and just download them.

The other tips on the TED blog post are excellent. Go read and do your part to make deadly PowerPoint extinct.

John Boehner’s boneheaded idea

I usually stay away from directly commenting on political matters here, but because this involves the law I figure it’s fair game. This is a good teaching moment, actually. Misunderstandings about how the law works are rampant. I hope I can nuke one of those misunderstandings here.

We’ve heard recently that Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) intends to “sue President Obama” for breaching his oath to uphold and defend the Constitution. As I understand it, the Speaker is upset that the President has used various executive orders to try to accomplish things when the dysfunctional Congress cannot. He’s also upset that the President has chosen not to enforce certain federal laws.

While Speaker Boehner’s rhetoric has been getting attention, his idea is woefully short on details. He hasn’t identified a single specific thing. Maybe he will later on.

The bigger problem here is that there may not be grounds for a lawsuit at all. This can be a hard concept to understand. We’ve all been outraged at times about something we’ve heard about. Sometimes we’ve even mused that we “ought to sue” whoever is responsible for the outrage. Before picking up the phone to call a lawyer, however, it can be wise to step back and look at the situation carefully.

Stand by me

The law requires that a plaintiff have what is called standing to sue. Standing can be a little hard to explain, but once you understand it then it’s usually pretty easy to figure out if a person has standing or not. The first part of standing means that the plaintiff has a sufficient stake in the controversy. In other words, does the plaintiff have a real interest in the controversy sufficient to create an issue that the court can resolve? Put another way, is this plaintiff the right person to bring the lawsuit? In Speaker Boehner’s case, he may have a genuine concern about the controversy, but I’m not so sure he has a sufficient stake. He (or whoever the plaintiffs are) will have to show that they have somehow been affected by the President’s actions or inactions. (Being annoyed is not the same as being affected. It might be annoying that I build a house that blocks your view of the lake. But if I steal bricks from your house to build mine, that’s an entirely different situation that would give rise to standing.)

The second part of standing requires that the plaintiff actually suffer some legal injury that can be remedied by the court. No legally recognizable injury, no standing. An example may help. Let’s say the local school board passes a rule requiring students to pray in school. If I have a child in that school, I would have standing to challenge the rule because it adversely affects my child if I object. But if I don’t have a child in that school, the rule doesn’t affect me or my child, so I probably wouldn’t have standing to object.

In Speaker Boehner’s case, it’s hard for me to tell whether he or his colleagues would actually have been adversely affected by the President’s actions. Let’s look at another example to clarify this. The Supreme Court ruled last month that the President’s so-called recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board were not in compliance with the Constitution’s provisions. The Constitution says exactly when a president can make recess appointments, and the Court concluded that those circumstances didn’t exist at the time of the appointments. (That’s grossly oversimplified, but it will do for now.)

Would Speaker Boehner and his colleagues have had standing to challenge that presidential appointment? Most likely not, since the appointment didn’t do anything other than cause them consternation. (If experiencing consternation was all that was required to file a lawsuit, every lawyer I know would have much more work than he or she could possibly handle.) So who did challenge the appointment? It turns out it was a person who lost a ruling before the NLRB. He was able to say that the ruling should not be enforceable because the President didn’t have the power to appoint one of the board members. If the board was not properly appointed, its actions cannot stand. The Supreme Court agreed that the aggrieved party before the NLRB suffered a cognizable injury as a result of the President’s improper appointment.

Here’s one more example. The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 says that places such as retail stores have to be set up in a way that people using wheelchairs can use the place. We’ve all seen handicapped restroom facilities. Let’s say I run across a store whose restrooms are not ADA-compliant. I do not have a physical disability, so therefore I would not have standing to sue for an ADA violation. As much as it might bother me that the restroom is not compliant, I can still use the restroom successfully without the ADA-required items. I cannot sue on someone else’s behalf.  If I was wheelchair bound, however, I would have standing to sue since the lack of grab bars would prevent me from using the restroom.

Curtain call

We all know that politics is merely a form of the Theatre of the Absurd, and threats to sue the President are one way of throwing red meat to a hungry base of voters. At the same time, however, as citizens of the U.S., we ought to know enough to understand whether the suit is something serious or merely Act III in the never ending drama. My conclusion is, without knowing more, Speaker Boehner is delivering his Shakespearean soliloquy. Hey, maybe if he holds up a skull á la Hamlet, it would be Boehner in a boneheaded scene! [Even without reading this, I'm sure my wife is rolling her eyes at my claimed cleverness.]